The 50 greatest reggae songs of all time, ranked

18 July 2023, 14:12

Jimmy Cliff, Bob Marley and Ali Campbell
Jimmy Cliff, Bob Marley and Ali Campbell. Picture: Getty

By Tom Eames

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The Caribbean island of Jamaica is responsible for some of the greatest music styles that has inspired countless musicians around the world.

Reggae originated in Jamaica in the late 1960s and has since spread across the world, influencing many other styles of music.

It is characterized by a distinctive rhythm, often accentuating the off-beat, and lyrics that often deal with social and political issues. Reggae songs can be uplifting, rebellious, spiritual, or romantic, but they always have a unique vibe that makes them stand out.

Here, we look back at some of the best reggae songs of all time, from the classics to modern hits. Whether you are a fan of Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, UB40, or Shaggy, you will find something to enjoy in this list of reggae gems. So sit back, relax, and get ready to groove to the best reggae songs ever.

  1. Chaka Demus and Pliers - 'Twist and Shout'

    Chaka Demus & Pliers - Twist and Shout Feat. Jack Radics

    Released in 1993, this track came from Chaka Demus and Pliers, the Jamaican reggae duo consisting of DJ Chaka Demus (born John Taylor) and singer Pliers (born Everton Bonner).

    It is a reggae cover of the 1961 song by the Isley Brothers, famously covered by the Beatles.

    It also featured guest vocals from Jack Radics and the Taxi Gang, and was a massive hit in the UK, where it topped the singles chart.

  2. Shaggy - 'Oh Carolina'

    Shaggy - Oh Carolina 1993 (Official HQ)

    Jamaican reggae superstar released ‘Oh Carolina’ in 1993. It is a cover of the 1958 song by the Folkes Brothers, which was produced by Prince Buster and became an early ska hit.

    It brought fans Shaggy’s distinctive rough voice and fast 'toasting' style. It was used in the 1993 film Sliver starring Sharon Stone, which gave it international exposure, and topped the UK charts.

  3. Janet Kay - 'Silly Games'

    Janet Kay - Silly games - Top of The Pops 1979

    This ballad from 1979 was a perfect example of the 'lovers' rock' genre, a reggae offshoot that focused on romantic sentiments.

    The song featured British singer Janet Kay’s incredibly high-pitched vocals, and reached number two. She became the first British black female reggae artist to have a top 10 hit.

  4. Third World - 'Now That We've Found Love'

    Third World - Now That We Found Love (1979)• TopPop

    'Now That We’ve Found Love' was written by Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff and originally recorded by The O’Jays in 1973.

    In 1978, the Jamaican group Third World recorded the song in a more uptempo style with a funk bassline, leaving off the strings from the original version.

    The song has a somewhat universal message of loving and acceptance, as the singer has seen the light, and wants everyone to spread the message of hope.

  5. Inner Circle - 'Sweat (A La La La La Long)'

    Inner Circle - Sweat (A La La Long)

    This track was by Inner Circle, a Jamaican reggae fusion group, released first in July 1992 as the lead single from their twelfth album, Bad to the Bone.

    The song is a catchy and sensual tune that invites a woman to dance and get intimate with the singer. It contains the refrain “a la la la la long”, which has been interpreted as a euphemism for sex.

    The song was a huge hit in several countries, reaching number one in Belgium, Germany, Israel, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Portugal, Switzerland, and Zimbabwe. It also reached number three in the UK and number 16 in the US.

  6. Bitty McLean - 'It Keeps Raining'

    Bitty Mclean - It Keeps Raining Tears From My Eyes 1993 (Official Music Video) Remastered @Videos80s

    British-Jamaican reggae star Bitty McLean scored a big hit in 1993 with this track, which is a cover of the 1961 song by Fats Domino.

    The song was produced by McLean himself, who was also a former UB40 backing vocalist.

    It was one of three UK top 10 hits for McLean, who also had success with ‘Dedicated to the One I Love’ and ‘Here I Stand’.

  7. Red Dragon and Brian and Tony Gold - 'Compliments on Your Kiss'

    Red Dragon ft Brian + Tony Gold - Compliments on Your Kiss (Original Music Video)

    This jazz-tinged reggae song was released by Jamaican deejay Red Dragon featuring reggae duo Brian and Tony Gold.

    It was released in 1994 and became a hit in the UK, where it peaked at number two on the singles chart.

  8. Shaggy - 'Angel'

    Shaggy - Angel ft. Rayvon (Official Music Video)

    Featuring Rayvon on vocals, this was released in 2001 as the follow-up to Shaggy’s international number-one hit, 'It Wasn’t Me'.

    The song contains samples from 'The Joker' by Steve Miller Band and 'Angel of the Morning' by Chip Taylor.

    The song is a reggae and R&B fusion that praises a woman who is loyal and supportive to her partner. The song was a huge success, reaching number one in 12 countries, including the US, the UK, Australia, and Germany.

  9. Bruno Mars - 'The Lazy Song'

    Bruno Mars - The Lazy Song (Official Music Video)

    Bruno Mars released this track in 2011 as the third single from his debut studio album Doo-Wops & Hooligans.

    It has been described as borrowing “heavily from roots reggae” and has been compared to the reggae pop style of Jason Mraz.

    It is an anthem to laziness, and topped the UK chart.

  10. Bobby McFerrin - 'Don't Worry Be Happy'

    Bobby McFerrin - Don't Worry Be Happy (Official Music Video)

    This tune encourages listeners to not worry, even if they have financial or personal struggles, because worrying only makes it worse. Instead, Bobby suggests to be happy and not let troubles affect their mood.

    The song was from Bobby McFerrin’s fourth album Simple Pleasures and was the first a cappella song to reach number one in the States.

  11. No Doubt - 'Underneath It All'

    No Doubt - Underneath It All ft. Lady Saw

    This reggae song was co-written by singer Gwen Stefani and Eurythmics' Dave Stewart, and features guest vocals from Jamaican dancehall artist Lady Saw.

    Released in 2002, it is a love song that Gwen's gratitude and appreciation for her boyfriend (at the time) Gavin Rossdale, who is "lovely underneath it all" despite their differences.

  12. Toots and the Maytals - 'Pressure Drop'

    Toots & the Maytals - Pressure Drop - 11/15/1975 - Winterland (Official)

    This track was released in 1969 by Toots and the Maytals, the Jamaican reggae band led by Frederick ‘Toots’ Hibbert.

    The song gained international exposure when it was featured on the soundtrack of the 1972 film The Harder They Come, which introduced reggae to much of the world.

    The song is about karmic justice, as Hibbert explained: “If you do bad things to innocent people, then bad things will happen to you.”

  13. Peter Tosh - 'Legalize It'

    Peter Tosh - Legalize It (Audio)

    Peter Tosh released this track in 1976 as the title track of his debut solo album, after he left the Wailers along with Bunny Wailer.

    It is a protest anthem that advocates for the legalization of cannabis, as well as a challenge to the oppression and injustice that Tosh faced in Jamaica.

    The song was banned in Jamaica when it came out, but it gained international recognition and popularity later on. The song was also inspired by Tosh’s Rastafari faith, which considers cannabis as a sacred plant.

  14. Aswad - 'Don't Turn Around'

    Aswad - Don't Turn Around

    This track was originally recorded by Tina Turner as a B-side to her 1986 hit single 'Typical Male'. Two years later, British reggae group Aswad released a cover version on their album Distant Thunder.

    Their version reached number one in the UK, and also sampled a verse from The Righteous Brothers’ 'You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’'.

  15. Bob Marley - 'I Shot the Sheriff'

    Bob Marley & The Wailers - I Shot The Sheriff (Live At The Rainbow Theatre, London / 1977)

    The story of this song is told from the point of view of a man who admits to having killed the corrupt local sheriff, but was falsely accused of having killed the deputy sheriff.

    It was later a big hit for Eric Clapton, after he took on a soft rock/reggae hybrid for his version.

  16. Dawn Penn - 'You Don't Love Me (No, No, No)'

    Dawn Penn - No, No No (Official Video)

    Jamaican singer Dawn Penn brought out this tune in 1994, though it is actually a remake of her 1967 song of the same name, which was itself a cover of Willie Cobbs’ 1960 song.

    The song was a huge hit worldwide, reaching number three in the UK. It was the lead single from Penn’s first studio album No, No, No, which marked her comeback after a 17-year break from the music industry.

  17. Eddy Grant - 'I Don't Wanna Dance'

    Eddy Grant - I Don't Wanna Dance (Original Promo) (1982) (HD)

    Guyanese-British singer Eddy Grant released this reggae pop track in 1982.

    The song is a rejection of the social and political pressures that Eddy faced in Britain, and a desire to escape to a simpler life.

    It was a huge success in the UK, where it topped the singles chart for three weeks.

  18. China Black - 'Searching'

    China Black - Searching

    British pop-reggae duo China Black recorded this track, written and produced by Simon Fung.

    It was originally released in June 1992 on the UK independent label Big One but did not become a chart success. In 1994, it was re-released on the Wildcard label of Polydor Records and reached number four.

    The song is a catchy and soulful reggae tune that expresses the singer’s longing for love.

  19. Maxi Priest - 'Wild World'

    Maxi Priest - Wild World (Official Video)

    Jamaican-English reggae singer Maxi Priest released this in 1988 as the lead single from his self-titled debut album.

    The song is a cover of the 1970 folk rock hit by Cat Stevens, written as a farewell to his lover.

    Priest’s version is a reggae reinterpretation that adds a saxophone solo. The song was a hit in several countries, reaching number five in the UK.

  20. Desmond Dekker - 'You Can Get It If You Really Want'

    Desmond Dekker You Can Get It If You Really Want (official audio)

    This song was written and performed by Jimmy Cliff and released in 1970. It is a rocksteady song that encourages perseverance and optimism in the face of challenges.

    The song was later recorded by Desmond Dekker, and became a hit in several countries, reaching number two in the UK.

    The song has been used by various political groups, such as the Sandinista National Liberation Front in Nicaragua in 1990.

  21. Aswad - 'Shine'

    Aswad - Shine

    British reggae group Aswad released this track in 1994 as the lead single from their album Rise and Shine.

    The song was remixed by the Beatmasters, who gave it a more dance-oriented sound. It is a catchy and upbeat reggae tune that encourages the listener to shine and be happy.

    The song was a hit in several countries, reaching number five in the UK.

  22. Boris Gardiner - 'I Want to Wake Up With You'

    Boris Gardiner 'I Want To Wake Up With You' (Official Video)

    This romantic reggae song by Jamaican singer Boris Gardiner was released in 1986. Written by Ben Peters, it was originally recorded by country singer Mac Davis in 1980.

    Gardiner’s version became a huge hit, reaching number one in the UK and Australia.

  23. Pato Banton - 'Baby Come Back'

    UB40 & Pato Banton - Baby Come Back

    'Baby Come Back' is a song by Pato Banton featuring Ali and Robin Campbell of UB40, released in 1994.

    It is a cover of the 1968 song by The Equals, written by Eddy Grant.

    Banton’s version is a pop-reggae song that pleads for a lover to return, backed by the UB40 brothers. The song was a huge hit in the UK, reaching number one on the UK and becoming the third best-selling single of the year.

  24. Althea & Donna - 'Uptown Top Ranking'

    Althea and Donna - Uptown Top Ranking - TOTP - 1978

    This single was by the Jamaican teenage singers Althea Forrest and Donna Reid, recorded when they were 17 and 18 years old respectively.

    Released in 1977, the song comprises the girls ad-libbing to deejay track 'Three Piece Suit' by Trinity.

    The song was initially recorded as a joke. The title describes what a Jamaican does when he goes to the city to show off. Producer Joe Gibbs came across a song by reggae star Trinity and he decided to record a female response as a companion.

  25. Jimmy Cliff - 'Many Rivers to Cross'

    Jimmy Cliff- Many Rivers To Cross

    This track was written and recorded by Jimmy Cliff in 1969. It is a reggae ballad that expresses his struggles and hopes as an immigrant in Europe, looking for success in the music industry.

    The song mentions the White Cliffs of Dover, a symbol of England, as one of the obstacles he has to overcome.

    The song has been covered by many artists, such as UB40, Cher, and Annie Lennox, and has become a classic of reggae music.

  26. Bob Marley - 'Get Up Stand Up'

    Bob Marley - Get Up, Stand Up (Live at Munich, 1980)

    This song was co-written by Bob Marley and Peter Tosh, and it first appeared on The Wailers' 1973 album Burnin’.

    It is a call to action for people to stand up and fight for their rights against oppression and injustice. It was inspired by Marley’s visit to Haiti, where he witnessed the poverty and suffering of the people.

    The song was also influenced by the Rastafari belief that "Almighty God is a living man", which is expressed in the third verse.

  27. UB40 - 'Food for Thought'

    UB40 - Food For Thought

    This was UB40's debut single in 1980, from their album Signing Off. It was a double A-side with 'King' and peaked at number four in the UK.

    It criticizes the hypocrisy of celebrating Christmas while ignoring the suffering of others in the world. The lyrics were written by Robin Campbell with help from his father Ian Campbell, and were inspired by the genocide in Cambodia by the Khmer Rouge.

  28. Bob Marley - 'One Love'

    Bob Marley & The Wailers - One Love / People Get Ready (Audio)

    Originally recorded as a ska song in 1965, it was later reworked and became one of Bob Marley's biggest hits in the 1970s.

    The song contains elements of The Impressions' song 'People Get Ready' written by Curtis Mayfield.

    The original version didn't credit Mayfield's song and was simply titled 'One Love', as copyright law was not enforced in Jamaica at the time. When the more famous version was released in 1977, it was retitled and credited to Mayfield.

  29. Millie Small - 'My Boy Lollipop'

    Millie Small - My Boy Lollipop (1964) 4K

    Jamaican singer Millie Small released this track in 1964, reaching number two in both the UK and US charts, and selling over seven million copies worldwide.

    It was also the first major hit for Island Records and helped to achieve the label its mainstream success.

    The song was originally an R&B hit in 1956 by a white American singer named Barbie Gaye. Small’s version has more of a reggae and ska feel and features a harmonica solo by Pete Hogman.

    Small was just 17 when the song was released and became the Caribbean’s first international recording star and its most successful female performer. She died in 2020 at the age of 72.

  30. 10cc - 'Dreadlock Holiday'

    10cc - Dreadlock Holiday

    'Dreadlock Holiday' was written by 10cc's Eric Stewart and Graham Gouldman, about a white man lost in Jamaica who is confronted by a dreadlocked man looking for money.

    The song was based on a true event that happened to Moody Blues vocalist Justin Hayward and Eric Stewart in Barbados.

    The reggae-inspired song features catchy hooks, humorous lyrics and a distinctive chorus that goes “I don’t like cricket, oh no, I love it”. The song is considered one of the band’s classics and a popular example of reggae rock.

  31. UB40 - 'Can't Help Falling in Love'

    UB40 - (I Can't Help) Falling In Love With You (Remastered 2002)

    This track is a cover of the 1961 song by Elvis Presley, which was featured in his film Blue Hawaii.

    Their reggae version of the romantic ballad features Ali Campbell’s lead vocals and a saxophone solo by Brian Travers. It was a huge hit worldwide, reaching number one in the UK and US.

  32. The Specials - 'Ghost Town'

    The Specials - Ghost Town [Official HD Remastered Video]

    British two-tone band The Specials released this haunting track in 1981. The song spent three weeks at number one in the UK, and is remembered for evoking themes of urban decay, deindustrialisation, unemployment, and violence in inner cities.

    The song was inspired by the state of Britain in 1981, including rising unemployment and racial tensions. The song was the last single recorded by the original seven members of the group before splitting up.

  33. The Police - 'Walking on the Moon'

    The Police - Walking On The Moon

    This track exemplified The Police's reggae/rock/new wave hybrid that they pioneered in the late 1970s.

    It was the band's second number one hit single in the UK. It is partially inspired by Sting's girlfriend at the time and "for being in love is to be relieved of gravity".

  34. Bob Marley - 'Buffalo Soldier'

    Bob Marley & The Wailers - Buffalo Soldier (Official Music Video)

    This track is about the black American soldiers who fought in the Indian Wars after 1866. The term 'Buffalo Soldier' was originally used by Native Americans as a term of respect for the black soldiers who fought in the wars.

    The song has become one of Marley’s most popular songs and has been covered by many artists.

  35. Blondie - 'The Tide is High'

    Blondie - The Tide Is High

    This was originally a 1996 track written by John Holt, performed by the Jamaican group The Paragons, with Holt as lead singer.

    Blondie covered the song in 1980 with a reggae feel, and it topped both the UK and US charts. Atomic Kitten later reached number one in the UK with a cover of their own.

  36. Ken Boothe - 'Everything I Own'

    Everything I Own (7'' Mix)

    Ken Boothe, a Jamaican reggae singer, released this track in 1974 as the lead single from his album of the same name. The song is a cover of the 1972 soft rock hit by Bread, written by David Gates in memory of his father.

    Boothe’s version is a soulful and emotional reggae rendition that expresses his devotion to his lover. The song was a number-one hit in the UK, where it spent three weeks at the top of the charts in October 1974.

    It has been covered by many artists, such as Boy George, who also reached number one in the UK with his reggae pop version in 1987.

  37. Bob Marley - 'Jamming'

    Bob Marley & The Wailers - Jamming (Official Music Video)

    This was taken from The Wailers' 1977 album Exodus.

    It is a reggae anthem that celebrates the joy of making music together. The word 'jamming' refers to a musical session or celebration in Jamaican patois.

  38. Bob Marley - 'Could You Be Loved'

    Bob Marley & The Wailers - Could You Be Loved

    The Wailers released this track in 1980 as the first single from their last album, Uprising.

    The song was written in 1979 on an aeroplane while the Wailers were experimenting on guitar. The song is a reggae and disco fusion that challenges the listeners to be true to themselves and to love one another.

    It is one of Marley’s most popular songs and has been covered by many artists, such as Joe Cocker, Lauryn Hill, and Rihanna.

  39. Bob Marley - 'Is This Love'

    Bob Marley - Is This Love (Official Music Video)

    This love song was released in 1978 as the lead single from The Wailers' album Kaya, and it became one of Marley’s best-known and most-loved songs.

    It is a romantic expression of Bob's feelings for his wife Rita, and it also reflects his happy and carefree mood.

    It has been covered by many artists, such as Carly Simon, Corinne Bailey Rae, and Rihanna.

  40. Musical Youth - 'Pass the Dutchie'

    Musical Youth - Pass The Dutchie

    Musical Youth were a British-Jamaican reggae band, and this track was released in 1982 as the lead single from their debut album, The Youth of Today.

    The song was produced by Toney Owens from Kingston, Jamaica. It is a cover of 'Pass the Kouchie' by Mighty Diamonds, which deals with the recreational use of cannabis. The word “dutchie” was changed to refer to a cooking pot instead of a cannabis pipe.

    The song was a huge hit, reaching number one in the UK, and sold over five million copies worldwide.

  41. Stevie Wonder - 'Master Blaster (Jammin')'

    Master Blaster (Jammin')

    Stevie Wonder recorded this reggae-inspired song in 1980 as the first single from his album Hotter than July, which was a tribute to Bob Marley and the Wailers.

    The song uses Marley’s song 'Jamming' and also mentions ‘children of Jah’ and the end of the civil war in Zimbabwe.

    The song was a major hit, and features a distinctive harmonica solo by Stevie.

  42. Big Mountain - 'Baby I Love Your Way'

    Big Mountain - Baby I Love Your Way(1994)

    Big Mountain, an American reggae/pop band, released this track in 1994 as the lead single from their album Unity and the soundtrack of the film Reality Bites.

    The song is a cover of the 1975 soft rock hit by Peter Frampton, written by Frampton as a love song. Big Mountain’s version is a reggae and pop fusion that adds a saxophone solo and a Spanish verse.

    The song was a huge hit in several countries, reaching number six in the US, and number two in the UK1.

  43. Desmond Dekker and the Aces - 'Israelites'

    Desmond Dekker & The Aces – Israelites (Official Lyrics Video)

    Written by Desmond Dekker and Leslie Kong, this track became a hit for Dekker’s group in 1969.

    It is a ska and reggae song that reflects Dekker's experience as a poor and oppressed Jamaican, comparing himself to the biblical Israelites. It was sung in Jamaican creole, which made it hard for many listeners outside Jamaica to understand the lyrics at the time.

    But that didn't stop the song being the first UK reggae number one, and one of the first to reach the US top ten.

  44. The Police - 'Roxanne'

    The Police - Roxanne

    This reggae-rock track was written by Sting, and is about a man who falls in love with a prostitute and tries to convince her that she doesn’t have ‘to turn on her red light’.

    Sting got the idea after walking through the red-light district of Paris when the band was in town to play at a club called The Nashville, where he saw prostitutes for the first time.

  45. UB40 - 'Red Red Wine'

    UB40 - Red Red Wine (Official Video)

    You might not have realised it, but Neil Diamond first recorded this song back in 1967. But it's UB40's cover that became the most well-known in 1983.

    The song truly brought the band to the mainstream, and reached number one in the UK. It ended up topping the US charts too in 1988, after being performed at Nelson Mandela's birthday tribute concert.

    UB40 interview: 'Neil Diamond still hasn't thanked us for Red Red Wine!'

  46. Bob Marley - 'No Woman, No Cry'

    Bob Marley & The Wailers - No Woman, No Cry (Live At The Rainbow 4th June 1977)

    This ballad was first released in 1974 as the first single from The Wailers' album Natty Dread. It was also included on their live album Live!, which was recorded at the Lyceum Theatre in London in 1975.

    The song is a reggae ballad that comforts a woman who suffers from poverty and violence in the ghetto.

    It is one of Marley’s best-known songs and has been covered by many artists, such as Joan Baez, Boney M, and Fugees.

  47. Bob Marley - 'Redemption Song'

    Bob Marley & The Wailers - Redemption Song

    One of Bob Marley's most inspiring and popular songs, its lyrics derived from a speech by the Pan-Africanist speaker Marcus Garvey called 'The Work That Has Been Done'.

    When he wrote it, Bob Marley had been diagnosed with cancer. According to Rita Marley: "he was already secretly in a lot of pain and dealt with his own mortality, a feature that is clearly apparent in the album, particularly in this song".

  48. UB40 - 'Kingston Town'

    UB40 - Kingston Town

    'Kingston Town' was first recorded by Lord Creator in 1970, which praises the beauty and charm of Kingston, the capital of Jamaica.

    The song was covered by UB40 and released as the second single from their album Labour of Love II in 1990. It became one of the group’s most successful songs, reaching number four in the UK.

  49. Johnny Nash - 'I Can See Clearly Now'

    Johnny Nash - I Can See Clearly Now (Official Audio)

    'I Can See Clearly Now' was written and recorded by Johnny Nash in 1972. It was the lead single from his album of the same name, and became a huge hit in the US and the UK.

    The song is a soulful and optimistic reggae tune, with lyrics that express Nash's joy after overcoming difficulties. The song has been covered by many artists, such as Jimmy Cliff, who recorded it for the movie Cool Runnings in 1993.

  50. Bob Marley - 'Three Little Birds'

    Bob Marley & The Wailers - Three Little Birds (Official Video)

    This feel-good song is often thought to be named 'Don't Worry About a Thing' or 'Every Little Thing is Gonna Be Alright', due to its repeated lyrics in the chorus, but nope!

    The inspiration behind Marley's uplifting song remains disputed. They are partly inspired by actual birds that Marley was fond of, that used to sit next to his home.

    Also, three female singers from the reggae group I Threes who performed alongside Marley have claimed it was a reference to them.